Somewhat belatedly, I want to take note of an interesting, rather acerbic article by Matt Welch at Reason.com, “The Pro-war Libertarian Quiz: How far are you willing to go to win the War on Terror?” Matt asks pro-War on Terror libertarians and libertarian/conservatives who have defended controversial measures such as coercive interrogations, the use of Iraqi newspapers for U.S. propaganda, or extrajudicial surveillance of some Americans’ communications just what measures expanding state powers they would not support. Here is his checklist:
1) Should the National Security Agency or CIA have the ability to monitor domestic phone calls or e-mails without obtaining judicial approval?
2) Should the government have the ability to hold an American citizen without charge, indefinitely, without access to a lawyer, if he is believed to be part of a terrorist cell?
3) Can you imagine a situation in which the government would be justified in waterboarding an American citizen?
4) Are there American journalists who should be investigated for possible treason? Should Sedition laws be re-introduced?
5) Should the CIA be able to legally assassinate people in countries with which the U.S. is not at war?
6) Should anti-terrorism cops be given every single law-enforcement tool available in non-terrorist cases?
7) Should law enforcement be able to seize the property of a suspected (though not charged) American terrorist, and then sell it?
8) Should the U.S. military be tasked with enforcing domestic crime?
9) Should there be a national I.D. card, and should it be made available to law enforcement on demand?
10) Should a higher percentage of national security-related activities and documents be made classified, and kept from the eyes of the Congress, the courts, and the public?
Matt, who is definitely not a “more libertarian than thou” type, would answer no on all of the above. I’m wavering on (5) and (6). One (1), I have to confess that the idea of a computer program scanning emails in order to pick out certain suspect words (as long as those emails are not read by any individuals) does not particularly horrify me even if such scans do not require a warrant. I could be wrong, of course, but I just don’t see the massive threat to liberty here.
Agree or disagree on some of those specifics, I think Matt raises a very important issue. There are self-identified libertarians and small-government conservatives who have justified illiberal, unlibertarian, big-government measures on the grounds that “we’re at war.” The danger of these justifications is compounded by the fact that this war has no clear definition of victory, no specific goal, no geographic limitations — no discernible end. A war that could go on indefinitely and that can serve as a justification for curtailing civil liberties: a greater internal danger to freedom is hard to imagine.
On the other hand, for an example of how not to argue against the threat to freedom posed by the War on Terror, check out this op-ed by Silicone Valley entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, blogged at Reason’s Hit & Run under the heading, “Rodgers Gets It Right.”
Rodgers correctly discusses the disturbing implications of some actions undertaken in the name of the War on Terror, including the recently revealed unauthorized NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens. (My own take on that, by the way, is closest to the one stated here by former New York Mayor Ed Koch.) But then he gets to his conclusion:
What’s the worst thing that Al-Qaida can do to America? We have probably already seen it. Of course, the government can talk about bigger things, like the use of weapons of mass destruction, to justify its use of totalitarian tactics.
I would much rather live as a free man under the highly improbable threat of another significant Al-Qaida attack than I would as a serf, spied on by an oppressive government that can jail me secretly, without charges. If the Patriot Act defines the term “patriot,” then I am certainly not one.
By far, our own government is a bigger threat to our freedom than any possible menace posed by Al-Qaida.
Rodgers cites no evidence that another significant Al-Qaeda attack (including one using biological weapons) is “highly improbable.” I don’t think that either his optimistic estimate of such a probability or his rather cavalier dismissal of it is likely to impress a lot of Americans who are not hardcore libertarians. I don’t think we need to sacrifice civil liberties or the Constitution to avoid another 9/11 or an even greater calamity; but “better a major terror strike in America than warrantless wiretapping of suspected terrorists” is not an argument that will carry the day.